Pennsylvania, 1913. The four Wittmann brothers manufacture steel precision tools. Jochen (Joe) is a ruthless businessman who seeks to improve the bottom line at any cost. Friedrich (Fred) dabbles in Socialism but would never sacrifice his dividends. Wilhelm (Willie) prefers to collect art rather than visit the factory floor. Only Karl (Charles), a widower, has the vision to keep the family business in the black.
Now, as the winds of war sweep across Europe, anti-German sentiment turns the family’s allies against them, and war profiteers threaten to remake the entire steel industry into a merchant of death. But Charles’s greatest worry is that his son will be shipped overseas to die.
As Charles struggles against powerful forces inside and outside the Wittmann family, he finds an ally in Willie’s neglected wife, Phyllis. Who can predict if their unlikely romance is cause for hope or a sign of impending disaster?
A stirring family saga and a brilliant exposé of the military-industrial complex, The Balance Wheel ranks alongside Dynasty of Death and Captains and the Kings as one of Taylor Caldwell’s finest accomplishments.
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There was only one thing about Phyllis which annoyed Charles: she invariably served him sherry when he called on Sunday afternoons. She was a very perceptive woman; he sometimes wondered why she had never guessed, during all these years, that he disliked sherry.
It was not that sherry was repulsive to him. He thought the color very intriguing; the bouquet was pleasant. The taste was even more pleasant. But the wine disagreed with him. However, he sometimes thought, in more indulgent moments, that it was not the sherry which frequently produced his biliousness but his contact, on these Sunday afternoons, with his brother, Wilhelm, whom he persisted in calling Willie. Wilhelm's cold fury, on these occasions, never failed to give Charles considerable satisfaction.
On this afternoon, Charles was very pleased, indeed. Phyllis, Wilhelm's wife, had apologized for her husband's absence and had explained that Wilhelm was at the moment engaged in the very careful and excruciating task of supervising the hanging of the latest addition to his private gallery, a Van Gogh. "It arrived this morning, and Wilhelm had left distinct instructions that no matter when it came, midnight or Sunday or dawn, he was to be notified," she told Charles. "So it came just two hours ago, and he went down to the station for it, himself, and carried it back in the carriage, in his arms." She smiled affectionately, and she narrowed her eyes in a certain way which always made something stir achingly in her brother-in-law. "Nothing would do but to drag Gordon out of his lair over the stables to help hang the painting."
She added, her eyes still dancing between the narrowed lids: "He'll be down very soon, however. He's stopped scolding, so I imagine he's studying the effect now."
"Or maybe he's hanged Gordon for his clumsiness, and is preparing a defense," Charles said. "Of course, he'd be absolutely convinced that any jury would sympathize with him."
Phyllis laughed. They were having a very light conversation, as usual. They were rarely serious, when they were together. Many years ago, when they had been very young, they never had been anything else. It seemed to Charles that in those days they were always discussing some weighty matter or other. However, apparently the matters had not been weighty enough for Phyllis, and he had, involuntarily, betrayed a secret boredom. In the end, Phyllis had broken her engagement to him and had married his brother, who could be always depended upon never to laugh at anything at all. He still possessed, in considerable measure, this very dubious virtue, though he was now thirty-eight.
Charles hoped that Wilhelm's preoccupation with the Van Gogh would keep him absent for a long time. He might not have to see his brother until the moment of his leaving. That would be very agreeable. In the meantime, as he sipped his very fine sherry, he looked about him, as he always looked about him in this house, and particularly in this room. He had to admit that Wilhelm had taste.
The hot summer sun filtered softly through lengths of fine Venetian lace which covered the long arched windows of the room. Wilhelm had bought this lace, personally, in Italy; he had had it made especially to fit these windows. The delicate webs mellowed the sunlight, diffused it. The room was large and long, and cool, though heat blazed outside. It was panelled in ivory wood, traced over with a faint silver design consisting of a vase with rising leaves. Between the panels, the walls had been hung with a dim, silvery-gold brocade, in a leaf design also. The same motif had been followed diligently in the narrow molding which separated the walls from the ceiling, and this was overlaid with subdued gold. A similar molding had been set in the ivory ceiling some three feet from the margins. It gleamed unobtrusively in the soft light.
Wilhelm had agonized over every object in this room before purchasing it, just as he had agonized over every other room in his house. In fact, it had taken him well over twelve years to complete the furnishings, and even now he was not quite satisfied and brooded in dissatisfaction over trifles which were not "exactly right." To Charles, everything in the house was admirable and excellent, and especially here, in the music room. He never called it the "music room" though it undoubtedly had a piano in ivory and gold. He called it, to himself, "Phyllis' room." It fitted Phyllis perfectly, though she had chosen nothing in it. Wilhelm, it was, who had bought this faded dove-gray rug in France, with its central circle traced in a thin line of dark blue, and enclosing a design of large, pale blue acanthus leaves, the same design repeated on the four corners of the rug. It had taken Wilhelm two months of anguish to find the proper rug, and doubtless, thought Charles, he had given dealers a hellish time of it. He had most probably, in some French minds, dissipated the myth that Americans were gaudy and careless spenders, for Wilhelm was not only a perfectionist but parsimonious, also.
On each side of an immense white marble fireplace stood slender stands of gold-colored marble, supporting large cloisonné vases of the utmost beauty. Over the fireplace hung a very idealized portrait of Charles' and Wilhelm's father, painted by a fine Italian artist from a photograph. Charles often thought that Emil Wittmann would have laughed aloud at this portrait, which presented him as a grave and stately gentleman of fifty-five, holding a book in white and slender hands. Charles, remembering his father's hands, brown and square and sturdy, would be moved to some silent inner profanity.
Once, Charles, remembering how those hands could thump with telling force on a young backside, and how expert they were with tools and machinery, wondered if Wilhelm had not deliberately changed the hands in order to forget Emil's "grossness" and healthy reality. Perhaps he wanted to forget that Emil had had little patience with any literature except the Bible and Shakespeare and Goethe and Erasmus. Just as he had had the hands changed, so had he had the face changed. It was recognizable as Emil Wittmann, Charles had to admit, but old Emil had never had those aesthetically pale cheeks, that artistic, brooding expression, those very sensitive shadows about his mouth.
Perhaps there had been a craving, a longing, in the young Wilhelm, for an ideal father, according to his own needs. Emil had revolted his son, but his son would not be denied a father, and he had created this one in his secret hunger. I can be fanciful, myself, thought Charles, sipping his sherry and looking at the portrait, and though I may be wrong about the whole thing I can find it pathetic.
It was notable that Wilhelm had never had an idealized portrait of his mother painted from a photograph. Nothing could ever have been done about Gretchen Wittmann, short, round, hopelessly of sound peasant stock, and hopelessly cheerful.
All at once, in that sunlit room today, Charles could smell his mother's kitchen again and see the glimmer of the copper pots on the brick walls. He could see the slaughtered suckling pig on the white kitchen table, and his mother's hands, firmly stuffing the little animal. Sage and onion, spicy and mouth-watering.
He became aware that Phyllis had been speaking, and he started slightly. "I'm sorry," he said, "I was thinking of something."
"You were looking at Papa Wittmann's portrait," said Phyllis. She was laughing gently. "I know; it annoys you, doesn't it?"
Charles considered for a moment or two. "No," he replied finally. "Perhaps he looked that way to Wilhelm. To tell the truth, Phyllis, I was thinking of my mother. She was a wonderful cook, though not an overly dainty one. But you never knew her."
He looked at Phyllis. He was suddenly surprised, for all at once it seemed to him that Phyllis reminded him acutely of his mother. He had never thought so before, and there was no reason to think so now. No two women, in appearance at least, could be so dissimilar. Phyllis was all tall, fine and slender grace, too thin, perhaps, for modern taste, which demanded a figure of noble proportions. To some people, she might seem brittle; to Charles, she was discriminating and subtle, of a nervous acuteness which was also gentle and beautifully poised. She was rarely impatient with anyone, however trying, for she possessed great sympathy, a trait which expressed itself in her large blue eyes and full white lids. At thirty-four, her slender face was still unlined; there was humor in it, and repose. Charles thought he had never seen so lovely a forehead, with the bronze-colored hair rising in a high wave above it. Pearls glimmered in her beautiful ears and about her long neck. She now never bought a frock or a gown or a hat without Wilhelm's supervision, and Charles had to admit that Wilhelm's taste in women's clothing was also impeccable.
No, there was nothing about Phyllis which would set a sane mind to believing that she resembled Gretchen Wittmann. Phyllis' wide and palely colored mouth, vibrant yet restrained, had nothing in common with Gretchen's round red lips, pursed and judicious, or merry. Gretchen had had a thick and bulbous nose; Phyllis' nose was arched, the nostrils delicately flaring. Those eyes, so brilliantly intelligent, so shining, so quick to flicker and narrow and change, were not in the least, not even in expression, like Gretchen's strenuous brown eyes, a little small, and given to direct staring.
"I first knew you about six months after your mother had died, just after I had finished my senior year at Vassar," said Phyllis. She was regarding him thoughtfully. "I've never even seen a photograph of your mother, Charles. Yet I have an idea you resemble her a good deal. Don't you?"
"My father used to say there was some resemblance," he admitted.
She continued to study him. In the last five years or so she had thought of Charles as "the balance wheel," the strong wheel which kept a most complex and delicate machine in motion and in order, which regulated all the other parts, equalized them. Certainly, such a wheel was the very axis of a family composed of such unstable elements as Wilhelm, Friederich and Jochen Wittmann, not to speak of a business which demanded constant energy, initiative, ingenuity and common sense. Emil Wittmann had left to his sons a firmly established tool-making factory, but it was Charles (or Karl, as Friederich insisted upon calling his oldest brother) who had so expanded and enlarged it and made it so prosperous in Andersburg. Even during the panic of 1907, it had made money, had paid dividends and had stood securely. Now, in 1913, the possibilities of its continued growth were enormous, in spite of Wilhelm, Friederich and Jochen. It had kept its reputation for integrity and reliability, again in spite of the other three men, and most especially in spite of Jochen, who was so avaricious and so expedient.
Phyllis had known Emil Wittmann. All at once, as she studied Charles, she wished she had known Gretchen, too. Though Charles was somewhat above average height, he had a square and solid sturdiness of body, full of health and quiet vitality. Once, she had come to dislike this sturdiness; she had been very young, and she had finally been convinced that Charles had very little "soul."
She looked away from him now, and poured another cup of tea for herself. She slipped a sliver of lemon into her tea, and then a lump of sugar. She did all this, automatically, and a little tensely. Why had she ever thought Charles had no "soul"? Because he had had only two years of college, and then had refused to continue with an education which he had believed "nonsense" for himself? Because he had swallowed yawns when she had read poetry to him? Because he was always so realistic? I was such a — Phyllis began to think, then stopped herself sternly. The small muscles of her fingers tightened about her spoon.
"What's the matter, Phyllis?" asked Charles, seeing the change on her face.
She looked up at him with an effort, and smiled. "Why, nothing at all," she replied. She glanced at the gilt clock on the mantelpiece. "Really, it's almost five, and Wilhelm still hasn't come down. I think I'll send for him."
"Oh, let him alone with his Van Gogh! If he is interrupted now, he'll be murderous." Charles laughed. He put down his glass. The sherry was already burning in his stomach. He'd be bilious tomorrow. Salts, he thought, gloomily.
But Phyllis would not let him go, though he was standing now. She said, hastily: "I haven't asked about Jimmy. How is he? I haven't seen him for weeks, and you know how fond I am of him, Charles."
"Yes." He smiled down at her. "And Jimmy likes you, too, Phyllis. Jim's interested in the factory, though he's only seventeen."
"He's such a nice boy," murmured Phyllis. (She could not let him go, just yet. He must continue to stand near her, so strongly, so solidly, his hands in his pockets, and standing like this, far back on his heels, as she always remembered him standing.) "You've done so well for him, Charles. You're everything to him."
"He wouldn't like you to call him 'a boy,'" said Charles. "He thinks he's quite a man, you know."
Phyllis thought of Charles' wife, Mary, who had died three years ago. Mary had been her own friend, at Vassar, a dark and lively young girl, with a face which could change from extreme mirth to seriousness in a single moment. A dear, pretty girl — Mary. Phyllis had loved her.
Charles unobtrusively glanced at his watch. If he went now, he would escape seeing his brother. He still had to call upon his other brothers. It was a duty visit he paid to their homes once a month. He straightened his dark tie with a quick movement of his short broad fingers. The little clock chimed five.
Phyllis saw she could not keep him. Why had she ever thought him "undistinguished, ordinary"? He was not a handsome man. Wilhelm often called him "coarse." He had a broad full face, somewhat highly colored, a broad nose, a big full mouth, and smooth brown hair. There was no elegance in him. Yet Phyllis repeated to herself: "Why did I ever think him ordinary?"
It was just then that a maid came in to say that Mr. Wittmann had sent her to ask Mr. Charles Wittmann please not to leave, that he wished to see him and that he would join him, almost immediately.
Phyllis sat down. She ordered fresh tea. Her voice was somewhat absent. Charles sat down, also. There was something tense in the room. It disturbed him. He reached for his sherry glass, without thinking. "Well," he said, and looked, frowning, at the clock.CHAPTER 2
As he waited for his brother, Charles wondered vaguely if something was "wrong" with Phyllis. Then his speculations became less vague. Phyllis had changed considerably, he recalled, during the past few months or so, but he had not become so conscious of it until today. Once he had loved her, but had not enjoyed her company, for, when young, she had been too enthusiastic, too determined in her efforts to be stimulating, too erratic for his conservative taste.
It was strange, but marriage to Wilhelm, whom everyone had considered ideal for young Phyllis Chatham, then the belle of Andersburg, Pennsylvania, and even of Philadelphia, had changed Phyllis astonishingly. Before she was thirty, she had lost her eager solemnity and formidable interest in "art," and had become less interested in all the theories which had surged and ebbed and flowed during the very early years of the new century. Her humor became more dominant; she acquired a restfulness of character, and the basic animation of her nature had become enchanting. Charles had come to enjoy her company; she entertained him with her light comments, which he found most feminine. He no longer loved her, though he felt a deep affection for her. Suddenly, it came to Charles that Phyllis was unhappy.
He looked at her sharply, as they waited for Wilhelm. Was she really thinner and paler? Of course, she was thirty-four, and mature, and women changed with the years more than men did, and more noticeably. She had no anxieties that he, Charles, knew of; she was still extremely in love with Wilhelm. It was all nonsense, though there was a possibility that she was disappointed because she was childless.
That was it. Charles remembered that Phyllis always looked fondly at James, his son, that she never forgot his birthday, and was always delighted when the boy accompanied his father on a visit. She wanted, and needed, children. Charles was very sorry for her. It was not her fault that she had no family; from the very beginning, Wilhelm had expressed his open dislike for children, and had said that he never intended to have any. No child would ever ruffle the perfect order of his home or disturb his meditations and his long hours alone with himself in his library or gallery. He and Phyllis, he frequently said, had the "ideal" life, a completely "adult" life. They were truly companions, harmonious and considerate.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Balance Wheel"
Copyright © 1951 Taylor Caldwell.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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